From the Library: Context be Damned | Bacon’s New Atlantis

Francis Bacon is largely known for his Novum Organum Scientiarum (the philosophy that established the scientific method), Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, Divine and Human (proposing that higher education of everyone is beneficial to society as a whole), and New Atlantis.

It is this last tract in Bacon’s oeuvre that is most misunderstood—and in need of greater exploration. New Atlantis is Bacon’s attempt at a science-fictional utopia that most reviewers tend to characterize as an attempt to persuade the reader of the legitimacy of the scientific method. Most scholars do interpret Bacon’s work as the first to propose such ideas, but there is an important part to the story that remains untold, which led to this blog post.


To backtrack, I was given a 1628 copy of the book, Sylva Sylvarum, or, A naturall historie in ten centuries, to move its position within the Peter H. Raven Library’s collection. At first glance, it seemed to fit within the botanical scope of the library’s collection. This book seemed innocuous enough until I looked at the catalog record. I then saw that it included Bacon’s novelette, New Atlantis. This was an intriguing note, because I have a 1913 copy of this book at home that I have worked my way through. To find a copy of it in a note proclaiming that it was bound with Sylva Sylvarum came as a pleasant surprise.

When a bound ‘with’ note is present in a library catalog record, often the record noting where the physical location of the item is in the library (called an item record) is associated with two or more records describing the intellectual aspects of the book (called a bibliographic record – it is what most people immediately see when they access an online library catalog). It is not uncommon for pre-19th century books to be bound with one or more other books into a single volume. Another instance within our collection includes Andernaci medici Commentarius de balneis by Johann Gunther from 1565 is bound with Atrebat Rariorum alioquot stirpium per Hispanias observatarum historia by Carolus Clusius from 1576 and Quercetani medici Sclopetarius by Joseph du Chesne from 1576.The library had a bibliographic record for Sylva Sylvarum, but upon searching our catalog for New Atlantis, I discovered that the library lacked such a record. Since New Atlantis is considered among Francis Bacon’s most famous works, not finding a record for it in our catalog seemed very odd—even if it was a little outside the normal subject area of the library. So, because a record had never been made for this book, one needed to be created so that patrons would know of its presence.


I opened the volume to where New Atlantis began to gather the usual information located on the title page. Upon finding the title page, it was immediately apparent that the title page only listed the title and the author, but no other information. It lacked publisher/printer information, as well as where and when it was printed. This was quite unusual. In fact, in the hundreds if not thousands of books I’ve cataloged, I had not come across a title page that was similar for any 17th century and later books—unless the title page was just missing.

The next step was researching the book, so Google became my initial and expedient avenue by which to look up more information about Bacon and New Atlantis. Since Francis Bacon was not a botanist, nor considered important to botany, our library’s information would either be lacking or outdated. I found several analyses on New Atlantis, including a website that attributes its namesake to Bacon’s work. Although some of the scholarly articles are behind paywalls, there are a few that are freely available. After perusing these works, it became more apparent that New Atlantis was meant to be bound with Sylva Sylvarum from the onset of its publication. Additionally, the editor of the tome, William Rawley, notes in the preface to New Atlantis that “This Worke of the New Atlantis (as much as concerneth the English Edition) his Lordship designed for this Place, in regard it hath so neare Affinity (in one Part of it) with the Preceding Naturall History” (here “his lordship” referring to Bacon).

This explained the lack of title page information. The New Atlantis was meant to be a continuation of Sylva Sylvarum—which was to provide context. This was done for the first 15 editions of the work. It should be noted that the 1913 copy lacks any reference to Sylva Sylvarum.

Why does this matter? Sylva Sylvarum contains a series of scientific facts that Bacon believed were important for the public to know. It represents a synopsis of the scientific achievements of the day up to Bacon’s time. His aim was that the public would read the science in Sylva Sylvarum, and then move on into the New Atlantis to read about an isolated fictional society that proposed the idea of empirical data collection, thus trying to impart the relevance of the scientific method.

Although the data found within Sylva Sylvarum may be outdated, its context is important to the New Atlantis. As mentioned earlier, my 1913 copy of New Atlantis lacks either Sylva Sylvarum or Rawley’s preface. The preface that is included with the 1913 edition only mentions in a single brief note within a chronology of Bacon’s life that Sylva Sylvarum and the New Atlantis were originally published together. In fact, the author of the preface, Thomas Case, argues simultaneously that Bacon was not “an empiricist” (p. xii) in thought, yet he then goes on to write that Bacon “showed his foresight of future regeneration of science by the stress he laid on natural history, acquired both by observation and by experiment [author’s emphasis], as the foundation of natural philosophy” (p. xvii). This is a seeming contradiction of statements. A reader of this 1913 edition is led down a path of Case’s proselytizing without Bacon’s own scientific work Sylva Sylvarum, to precede New Atlantis. Thus, context is lost. Why does context matter? For both readers and researchers alike, realizing that New Atlantis has an entire work that was meant to be read beforehand may alter their understanding of Bacon’s only fictional work.

Bacon’s New Atlantis is considered a seminal work and should be read. The Peter H. Raven Library holds two copies of Sylva Sylvarum–the second edition published in 1628 and the fifth edition published in 1639–but many modern copies are available. To read Sylva Sylvarum and New Atlantis in its original state, please visit the Biodiversity Heritage Library (1st edition from 1627) (2nd edition from 1628). If you want to read New Atlantis only, you can likely find a copy in your local public library.


Randy Smith
Rare Book Cataloger / Metadata Librarian / Senior Image Technician

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